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Street mural removal for Madonnari Arts Festival reveals rift in Little Italy

A Department of Public Works crew sand-blasted a mural off the corner of Eastern Avenue and South High Street in Little Italy.

A city crew sand-blasted a faded mural of an eagle off the High Street pavement in Little Italy Wednesday, making way for the dazzling street chalk art of this weekend’s Madonnari Arts Festival — but also revealing a rift in the Southeast Baltimore neighborhood.

The removal of the “Liberty” mural, a painting by Baltimore artist Donald Tyson El of a bald eagle carrying an American flag in its beak and the Statue of Liberty’s torch, angered Giovanna Blattermann, a longtime neighbor who had commissioned the mural. Blattermann, whose family owns Cafe Gia Ristorante, acknowledged that she didn’t get a permit for it, but it was one of several beautification projects she’s taken on, like the Italian flag-painted fire hydrants and “Piccolo Italia” art on some corners.

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“We try hard to attract people with delicious food, beautiful artwork, anything to welcome people into this community,” she said. “I wanted something in Little Italy that doesn’t wash out in two weeks. ... Art is to be loved, not destroyed.”

Cyd Wolf, the festival’s lead organizer, argued that the street does not belong to Blattermann alone and that the faded mural, which officials had allowed to be painted during a previous year’s festival, was removed “in hopes we were going to get something more beautiful, more appreciated, more representative of Little Italy, in a legal manner, with a permit.”

The city’s Department of Public Works, which removed the mural Wednesday, “received a service request to remove the paint in the street, and did so," spokesman Jeffrey Raymond said in an email.

A DPW email obtained by The Baltimore Sun showed a 311 request for immediate “graffiti removal.”

Tyson El, the artist, said he’d been planning to repaint the street mural for this weekend’s festival, along with other art projects planned for Blattermann’s restaurant. Seeing it called graffiti and blasted away, he said, “hit below the belt.”

“It was strictly territorial,” he said.

Wolf argues the reverse: The Madonnari chalk art usually washes away with rain in about two weeks. The fading paint, which she called an “eyesore,” lingered.

“The street is not where you put permanent murals,” she said.

The weekend’s festival will close High Street to traffic from Pratt Street to Eastern Avenue and welcome an estimated 50,000 people to check out more than 40 Italian-style chalk art pieces, some of them designed to appear three dimensional. The Baltimore Jazz Alliance, which is co-hosting the event, will set up a performance stage on Fawn Street, and new offerings include an outdoor bar, a Children’s Chalk Center, and a pop-up art market on Stiles Street.

The $100,000 effort brings together 50 artists, nearly 100 sponsors and, this year, will include lessons for students from five schools on how to create the 3D art, Wolf said. Stilt walkers, magicians and other entertainers are expected to roam the street, and sunshine is in the forecast for the festival’s fifth anniversary.

Sal Milio, 66, who lives on High Street, was tossing an overnight bag into his car trunk Thursday afternoon, with plans to skip the festival and visit a friend and his children in Howard County over the weekend.

He has nothing against the festival, and neighbors and the attendees seem to enjoy it, he said. But the crowds are “too much of a hassle” for him.

As for the Little Italy neighborhood politics? “I don’t get involved with it,” he said.

Tad Cleaves, who has lived on Exeter Street for the past three years, said he likes the festival in his favorite neighborhood. The chalk art on the street is a reminder that there is beauty to be found in an otherwise “gritty city,” he said.

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Cleaves had heard about the mural removal from neighbors and initially chalked it up to a dysfunctional city bureaucracy.

“Hopefully something more beautiful will replace it,” he said.

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